Monday, December 10, 2007

Repression and Intolerance in the Universities: Is It Just the Faculty?

Via Cold Spring Shops, some interesting observations on the culture of intolerance and repression so typical in universities.

The standard line is to blame on the faculty, and in many cases they deserve the blame. But University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Donald Downs points out that a very large role is played by non-faculty bureaucrats.

A lot has been written about the details of the residential life program at the University of Delaware, and the ways in which it has bullied students and residential assistants to accept regnant orthodoxy. The nation’s collective hat should go off to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for exposing this program, and for compelling the university to back down - at least temporarily. The episode brings to mind last spring’s heated debate in the Chronicle of Higher Education over whether FIRE was too extreme in its attacks on higher education, and whether FIRE had outlived its usefulness. One case is not statistical proof, but the fact remains that without FIRE, this remarkably repressive program would still be in effect.

I want to address a broader issue in the Delaware case that has not attracted enough attention thus far: the role of non-faculty members in promoting the politicization of higher education. Kathleen Kerr, a mastermind of the Delaware program, is director of residential life for the University of Delaware. Interestingly, as John Leo has recently pointed out, she is also the chairperson of the American College Personnel Association’s Commission for Housing and Residential Life - a group with connections to universities across the country.

Most of the literature on the ideological politicization of higher education has focused on faculty members. The standard line is that the rise of political correctness and its tools of war (e.g., speech codes, sensitivity training, etc.) have been the product of left-wing baby-boomers assuming positions of authority on faculties and in the upper echelons of administration. The standard line provides an explanation in some cases. But my own experience and reading have caused me to look for further explanations of this state of affairs.

Frederick Lynch provided a detailed portrait of numerous interlocking national programs designed to promote diversity and attitudinal change, almost all of which were run by non-faculty personnel. The University of Michigan, for example, had about 100 such programs (this is not a misprint), but the faculty tended to ignore them because they applied to areas outside of the faculty’s main concern. As long as such programs did not jeopardize faculty research, no problem.

In a later essay, Downs discusses more explicitly the role of faculty members.
A panel discussion/debate in October between Stephen Balch and Harry Lewis at the Pope Center in North Carolina highlighted this disagreement. The panel dealt with the problems besetting liberal education, focusing on education’s aimlessness and failure to instill knowledge and respect for free institutions. Balch and Lewis agreed on several things, but offered two different slants on the ills of higher education. Comparing the views of Balch and Lewis can help us to clarify and refine the problem of politics in higher education today.

Balch, the distinguished president of the National Association of Scholars who recently was awarded the National Humanities Medal in the Oval Office, blamed the ills of liberal education on politicized faculty. According to Jay Schalin’s report of the panel, Balch argued that higher education is failing “because it has adopted a left-wing ideology that is at odds with our traditions. The university system, with its population of impressionable young people, is naturally attractive to people with ‘an inclination toward visionary and utopian thinking,’ and these Utopians feel that the purpose of education is to ‘move people toward their visions.’”

Lewis, a former dean of Harvard College and recent author of the noteworthy book, Excellence Without a Soul, contested Balch’s assessment. Lewis agreed that liberal education is failing to train citizens who are knowledgeable about the strengths and weaknesses of free institutions, and that this state of affairs constitutes a crisis for the nation. But he does not believe that the fault lies with a politicized left that disdains liberal democracy and American institutions. “The aimlessness problems are not the result of evil faculty or evil presidents, or even left wing conspiracies,” he declared. Rather, they are the “unintended consequence” of the overwhelming emphasis on the production of research at the nation’s leading institutions. “The root cause is the nature of the faculty who have been appointed in deference to research extremism.” With so much attention devoted to research, there is neither time nor inclination to pay attention to the quality of education and academic freedom.
And further:
Stephen Karlson of Northern Illinois University raises a further point in responding to my last essay on his blog Universities are divided between senior faculty members with tenure and faculty members without tenure (most of whom are not even on the tenure track at all). These are the people who usually teach large courses, as many senior faculty disdain reaching out to large numbers of students - another problem of citizenship. Without the protection of tenure, they are more vulnerable if they resist the pressures of staff and others who promote politically correct agendas. At Wisconsin, for example, teaching assistants - perhaps the most vulnerable of all campus citizens - are exposed to sensitivity training that even my most liberal graduate students find exceedingly insulting and bullying. They complain to one another and to associates, but are reluctant to speak too loudly. (Alas, this is an area academic freedom advocates have not dealt with at Wisconsin or elsewhere.)
Downs, with excessive fair mindedness, wants to split the difference between Balch and Lewis. But he’s wrong.

No doubt a lot of the rigid indoctrination in universities comes from non-faculty bureaucrats. Any reader of this blog has seen documented what the Office of Student Development, the University Ministry and other related offices do. To an extent, this is simply bureaucratic empire building. If you come up with dozens of programs designed to promote “diversity” you have an excuse to hire a bunch of additional bureaucrats.

But the problem with faculty is not that they are too busy to protect academic freedom, it’s that they don’t particularly want to.

University faculties (and this certainly applies to Marquette) are not polarized between busy active scholars who don’t have time to protect academic freedom and drones who do have time and do protect academic freedom.

The least tolerant and most politically correct departments at Marquette are not the ones where scholars publish most and get the most grant money. Rather, we find stifling political correctness in places like English, Philosophy, Sociology and Education. And then there are the feminists in various departments. Faculty in such places don’t want to protect students from indoctrination.

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